Rich language: when words become more than letters

Last night I took a cab out to the Cowell Theater in San Francisco to see Lera Boroditsky‘s Long Now talk, “How Language Shapes Thought.”
I stepped out of the cab, looked around, and text messaged my husband. He was somewhere nearby and as I was about to thumb in a wordy description of where I was so he could find me, I stopped, turned around, and took a picture of the building I was standing in front of instead.

Lera Boroditsky’s talk was fascinating. Apparently the way we use words affects the way we see the world. As a copywriter it wasn’t exactly an epiphany for me, but it’s always good to get specifics. And it led to a four hour conversation about, among other things, rich language.

Rich Language

Joe: “Hey Bob, how do I get to the well?”

Bob: “Which well?”

Joe: “The one… uh… with the stuff by it.”

Bob: “Sorry dude.”

Joe then spends four days watching buzzards circle as he staggers aimlessly through the desert. Sure, Bob could have just told him the way to a different well, but Bob was running late to an important meeting and he was kind of a dick in the first place. By sheer random luck Joe comes across another human being who takes the time to explain to him which way “west” is.

“West” isn’t just a word. It’s a concept. But before Joe knew the word, he had no understanding of the concept. Now that he understands that “west” is a thing, he starts to wonder, “What’s the opposite of west?” Once there’s two, they’re a category. So he starts to ask, “What else goes in the category of west and the opposite of west?” and after long enough he’s got north, south, left, right, up, down, fore, aft, starboard and port. Dumbass Joe who couldn’t even find a well is sailing all over the place building his own wells like a master. One word did that.

But what if Bob hadn’t been a dick and had used 20 seconds of his precious time to give Joe some Google Street View action and show him exactly where that well was and what the route looked like?

Some might say, “Well Joe would never have taken up sailing and the world would have lost its greatest well builder!” And then they might tear up a little like a schoolgirl. They’d probably be right, but Joe could just as easily have welled himself up a nice cool glass of water, felt refreshed, gone home to his wife and cat, and invented nuclear fission.

Words do shape the way we think. But the word “west” isn’t inherently more valuable than the information conveyed by a series of photos. And in fact, that series of photos does have a word. It looks like this:

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=d&source=s_d&saddr=city+hall&daddr=364+Hayes+St,+San+Francisco,+CA+94102+(The+Well,+Modern+Chiropractic)&hl=en&geocode=FdV3QAId8Am0-CHRzmTRFmssnw%3BFUlvQAIdrPuz-CGEFFdEf-SDwylRxBfqmICFgDE-OOx_FoD6cA&mra=pd&mrcr=0&sll=37.785482,-122.419769&sspn=0.034866,0.076818&ie=UTF8&ll=37.77916,-122.418377&spn=0.004359,0.009602&z=17&layer=c&cbll=37.77916,-122.418377&panoid=3NAgj7ygZIeM4NIhX2rz5w&cbp=12,183.76,,0,4.5

If Joe had known that word, he wouldn’t have needed Bob at all.

This is rich language. It’s like rich media, but more languagey. And it could change not just the way we see the world – but the way our entire species evolves.

Evolution

If you and me were to go back in time with two smartphones, (and somehow still get a signal,) sit down for dinner with a family of illiterate sheep herders, and start texting each other under the table, it would look exactly like we were freaking telepathic to them and we’d be burned at the stake faster than you can spell “bubonic plague.”

If we went back twenty years and you texted a link to Wikipedia article about bubonic plague to me, I would know everything you know about it instantly. We’d be effectively telepathic to those parachute-pant wearing lusers.

Ten years? How about I send you a link to a YouTube video? Holy crap, this entire temporal visual experience just appeared out of effing nowhere. This phone can’t even fit a DVD.

Of course if we went back two million years and I told you to go “west”, and you went west, our hairy Homo habilis buddies would have no freaking idea how you just figured out which way to go.

In response to one of the questions Lera was asked last night, she mentioned that the sound a clarinet makes is something no language has developed a word for. She’s wrong. It’s right here: http://www.soundsnap.com/tags/clarinet_sample . Or better yet, here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/clarinet/id390963659?mt=8 . What will we have words for when we have haptic phones? Brain wave transmitters? There’s already a word for the entire post you just read. How about the past three weeks exactly as you lived them? How about the experience of drowning? All of these can be compressed and communicated as words as soon as we have the tools to do so. (Fifty years? Twenty?) If something as simple as having a word for where the sun goes down can change the way we think about going anywhere, ever, how will rich language change us?

Or, more importantly, how will it change the way I write copy? I might have to come up with a whole new word for it. I like this game.

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